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#AskBurges: Changing How We Think About Community Engagement During, After COVID-19

Photo credit: Dione DeMitro

Community engagement is necessary to ensure that your organization’s ideas and plans are rooted in the values, priorities, and needs of your stakeholders. Authentic community engagement builds and sustains credibility and buy-in from your stakeholders. If your plans are only based on internal knowledge, but require community support to execute – and you didn’t engage your community in the planning – you have started your plan at a deficit.

Plans made in isolation of community’s input can fail for a number of reasons: stakeholders may disagree with your decisions; they may lack understanding for important why and how questions; or they may feel your organization does not value their perspectives.

With current restrictions and concerns related to COVID-19, many organizations have had to cancel public forums and planning meetings and are deciding to postpone community engagement sessions until things return to “normal” again. However, when and what “normal” will be is challenging to predict. There is no clear direction yet for when large gatherings will again be permitted.

More importantly, how will people feel and behave after the restrictions are lifted? According to a Harris national survey (conducted in waves, with the most recent being early May), 80% of Americans surveyed said they are very or somewhat concerned about their own or a loved one’s risk of being exposed to coronavirus when leaving their homes for essential errands. It will take additional time for people to return to participating in the same types of activities they did before the pandemic; the survey shows even after the government provides information that the spread of the virus is flattening, less than one-fourth (22%) would attend a large social gathering within 30 days. So, how do we create “spaces” for community engagement when the majority of our stakeholders may be hesitant to convene?

Key characteristics of effective and authentic community engagement

When creating alternative spaces for community engagement opportunities, we must ensure we are anchored to what makes for authentic and effective community engagement processes in the first place. Effective and authentic community engagement:

  • Involves stakeholder participation that is broad and diverse

  • Provides information and educates

  • Allows for open dialogue and is responsive to feedback

  • Includes intention and clearly articulated goals

  • Is sustained and systematic

Effective community engagement doesn’t just hear from the most highly motivated or most informed constituents, it goes one level deeper. Your participants should include a broad cross-section of various stakeholder groups. This should include opinion leaders, those you partner with and serve, and individuals who will be integral in operationalizing a plan. Without broad and diverse participation, you risk missing out on perspectives and considerations that could be important to the decision making process.

Community engagement is also an opportunity to educate stakeholders. Effective engagement meets people where they are (in terms of information), then elevates their knowledge by providing information they need to participate in the conversation in a meaningful way. It is important that a community engagement process allows for open dialogue in order to identify what knowledge gaps exist and what information is needed. An authentic process responds to the feedback as it is provided, builds on that input, and does not drive the conversation to a predetermined outcome.

Effective community engagement is intentional. Participants understand what they are being asked to discuss, and the structure manages the conversation. It is the work of the facilitator guiding the process to balance open discussion with keeping to the topic at hand. To have the greatest impact, engagement with your stakeholders must be systematic – and sustained. Large gaps of time, abrupt starts and stops, or suspended engagement without clear communications can be major pitfalls to success.

Tools and processes to succeed, both old and new

Over the past few months, millions of us joined the already 9.8 million people who work from home. The good news is the virtual tools available have developed and evolved to meet the needs of a changing workforce for some time – and a much broader audience is now likely at least somewhat familiar with these tools. Just think how prevalent mentions of “Zoom” have become in news stories, social media feeds, and online conversations in a matter of months.

You can leverage technology to convene people using any number of online meeting tools (Top VoIP Providers). When evaluating the tools available, you want to balance providing an opportunity with open dialogue and a “free for all” event. Most tools allow the host to control participants’ microphones, manage questions through interactive tools (e.g., chat functions, ability to raise your hand) and have options for breakout rooms.

Here are some best practices that will help position you for success:

  1. Establish ground rules. Here is a good example from NTEN. Clear ground rules help people who aren’t accustomed to online meetings feel more comfortable in a new environment.

  2. Make presentation materials and agenda available before event. This helps to manage people’s expectations and make the best use of your time.

  3. Test the technology and PRACTICE. If you are planning to use Facebook or YouTube and going live to collect participant’s comments in real time, get a group of people together and go for a test run. If it is the first time you are using a breakout room feature or sharing a document that you want people to contribute to while you are also speaking, solicit volunteers from your own team and identify any challenges before you go live with your group of stakeholders.

  4. Provide a call-in option when possible. Remember, community engagement is your best attempt to hear everyone’s voice. Not everyone will have access to the tools needed to join by computer, and some simply may not be comfortable with video options.

  5. Assign roles. You need more than one person facilitating. At least one other person should be assigned to curating comments and questions – or more depending on the number of breakouts rooms needed.

  6. Eliminate anonymity. Depending on the size of the meeting, consider starting with a large group and then moving into small breakout rooms where people can quickly introduce themselves.

  7. Keep the presentation portion short. Make sure most of the time is spent soliciting feedback from your stakeholders, otherwise you could have just sent the information out in an email. If there is more necessary info to share – do it via email or other method before and/or after the meeting.

  8. Use technology for participant brainstorming. Consider alternatives to paper sticky notes (noteapp).

  9. Create a space for everyone to contribute. Call on people, utilize breakout rooms, build in questions that people can respond to by “raising their hand” or via live survey questions. Be intentional.

  10. Provide real-time feedback (this is why you need more than one facilitator). As you synthesize the feedback, report it back to the participants to check for agreement.

  11. Communicate clear next steps and end time. Do this both verbally and visually, and stick to it.

Community engagement is important NOW more than ever

People are looking for ways to feel connected and for signs that life will be normal again at some point. Waiting until everything is normal again can devalue an organization’s stature and trust with the community in the future.

There is still a lot uncertainty right now, and confused constituents resist and oppose change. The only thing we know right now is that everything is changing because of necessity. It’s important to hear from your stakeholders, understand their fears and concerns, process their suggestions, and then adapt your plans to address that feedback.

#AskBurges for help with community engagement by emailing

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